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“The slave of the passions of her possessor” (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

September 7, 2011

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852:

We remark, en passant, that George was, by his father’s side, of white descent. His mother was one of those unfortunates of her race marked out by personal beauty to be the slave of the passions of her possessor, and the mother of children who may never know a father. From one of the proudest families in Kentucky he had inherited a set of fine European features, and a high, indomitable spirit. From his mother he had received only a slight mulatto tinge, amply compensated by its accompanying rich, dark eye. A slight change in the tint of his skin and the colour of his hair had metamorphosed him into the Spanish-looking fellow he then appeared; and as gracefulness of movement and gentlemanly manners had always been perfectly natural to him, he found no difficulty in playing the bold part he had adopted — that of a gentleman travelling with his domestic. (112)

The theme shared with contemporary Russian literature is that George’s mother was evidently what Gertsen calls a барская барыня. Harriet Beecher Stowe seems to think her fate was to be dreaded, while Gertsen (writing in a somewhat ambiguous tone, to be sure) lists such women among the slaves with special privileges. I hope as I collect more examples it will be easier to guess how much of the difference has to do with the underlying Russian and U.S. historical realia, the sex of the author, whether the author grew up in a slaveholding family, and other factors.

Illustration for Pushkin's "Mistress into Maid" by R. Shtein

“Passing” is obviously an enormous theme in American literature and culture. Reading about the legally black George passing for white made me realize that I couldn’t think of an example of a Russian serf attempting to pass for a free Russian – noble, merchant, clergy, or anything. There is a case of passing in reverse in Pushkin’s “Mistress into Maid” (Барышня-крестьянка, 1830). Does the added difficulty of posing as a non-slave when most slaves are visibly different mean it makes a better story? Or does it paradoxically make passing easier for the set of people who are slaves according to the law but look white? (Or, perhaps most likely, can you help me in the comments with examples of Russian slaves passing?)

I’m considering starting a list of themes one might expect in literature about slavery, but which I haven’t found (and then crossing them out if and when I find them). The first candidate, based on a possible extension of this passage from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is this: parents (or an enslaved husband or suitor?) of an attractive female slave deliberately disfiguring her, or otherwise making her less desirable to her owner and potential owners, so she would be merely the slave of her possessor and not also of his passions. It’s a not a nice thing to think about, and I rather hope it’s too farfetched, but its literary possibilities are clear.

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